Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3: Philharmonic for the people

The Royal Philharmonic, moneygrubbing Beethoven and the 9th.

Composer of the Week
BBC Radio 3

Five understated and languorous programmes celebrated the bicentenary of the Royal Philharmonic Society (5-9 August, 6pm) the UK’s oldest and most illustrious concert society. It was established in 1813 (just a few weeks after the seismic publication of Pride and Prejudice) by 30 professional musicians – many of whom hated each other – with the goal of funding London’s first purpose-built orchestral hall and putting classical music on a par artistically with the Royal Academy of Arts.

Of the many works commissioned and premiered by the RPS, it was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that caused the biggest stir – because it didn’t happen. Three members of the society paid Ludwig £50 in 1823 (£40,000 today), then waited 21 increasingly anxious months for the score, only to hear “on the grapevine” that he had premiered the piece in Vienna instead. “Some people could say that was naughty” was as critical as a commentator got when referring to this act of gobsmacking Ludwigian chicanery.

This kind of thing was in no way unusual for the composer. “For God’s sake, buy nothing of Beethoven!” went the cry in Europe at the time. There was never a more mendacious, crooked, moneygrubbing toe-rag than Ludwig in the later years of his life. If he were alive today, he’d have an account in the Cayman Islands in his dog’s name. So Napoleo - nic and oppressive did his behaviour become that his nephew blew off the top of his own head with two pistols at a place where the two of them used to walk, incredibly surviving his cast-iron “fuck-you-Ludwig”.

On 11 August, Westminster Council unveiled a plaque outside the building on Regent Street where the Ninth Symphony was eventually played. The 1825 records state that the RPS organised not just a public rehearsal but various alternative performances and discussions, all strikingly modern, yet at the same time so admirably and thoroughly of the period. Two hundred years ago was the best time in history to be a fan of classical music. The form, once commissioned by the church or state, was now done so by lovers of music, music collectives, or even the audiences: incomparable listeners, acutely aware of something we can have no conception of today – that in their lifetime they would hear this piece of music just once.

The mendacious, crooked, moneygrubbing late Ludwig. Photograph: Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear